- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2008

HOMESTEAD, Fla. | Nothing could stop Jimmie Johnson’s drive into the NASCAR record books. Not even a final, furious push by Carl Edwards.

Edwards led a race-high 157 laps and ran out of gas as he crossed the finish line but still won Sunday’s season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His series-best ninth win of the year wasn’t enough to wrest away the Sprint Cup title.

Johnson locked up his third consecutive championship by finishing 15th, beating Edwards by 69 points to join Cale Yarborough as the only drivers in NASCAR history to win three straight titles.

“It’s the ultimate reward. We worked so hard to put ourselves in this position,” Johnson said. “It’s just total teamwork and dedication. There were times this year when things were dark, but we buckled down and got to work, and that’s what it was really all about.”

Yarborough won his three titles 30 years ago under a different scoring system. He accomplished his feat when drivers scraped together the cash they needed to race, and the champion was the guy on top at the end of a long grueling season.

Johnson’s titles came in the glitzy new Chase format, where the best 12 drivers compete in a 10-race sprint to the title. Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team have mastered the system, proving themselves unbeatable in their pursuit of Yarborough’s mark. They have won their titles with consistency - he finished outside the top 10 just twice in this Chase, a 15th-place finish at Texas - and by winning eight of the past 30 Chase races.

They also have gotten rich along the way: Johnson won more than $2 million in the 10 Chase races this year. Yarborough notched a combined $1.63 million in all three of his championship seasons.

Although the industry was keenly aware of its front row seat to history, the celebration seemed subdued because of the economic crisis that has finally found its way to NASCAR. The big three automakers are crumbling, car owners are struggling to find sponsorship and widespread layoffs are expected Monday, when teams could let go as many as 1,000 employees.

Just this weekend, NASCAR said it would suspend all testing next year to help teams save millions in their 2009 budgets. Had the crisis hit earlier and the testing ban been in place this season, Johnson might not have won the title. He struggled at the start of the year to adapt to the full-time use of NASCAR’s current car, so he and crew chief Chad Knaus embarked on an aggressive testing schedule that helped them catch the competition by late summer.

By the time the Chase began in September, Johnson drove right past them.

“It’s what we work for; it’s what we do,” said Knaus, the first crew chief to win three consecutive titles. “We don’t want to do anything but race and win races and win championships.”

When Edwards won back-to-back races at Atlanta and Texas to take a bite out of Johnson’s lead, Johnson rebounded with a win at Phoenix last week to make Sunday’s drive a formality. Johnson needed only to finish 36th or better to win the title but got off to a rocky start when he qualified 30th.

Johnson moved to the top of the speed charts in Saturday’s practices, then wasted no time driving through the field at the start of the race. He picked up at least one position a lap and was running inside the top five as the laps wound down. He stopped for gas and tires with 13 laps to go, leading to his midpack finish.

Edwards pushed it to the limit, knowing he had to win the race, lead the most laps and pray for Johnson to have some trouble to win his first title. But he was a gracious runner-up, and after his trademark celebratory backflip, he walked over to Johnson’s passing car to congratulate him.

Said Edwards: “At least we can lay our heads down tonight and know we won some races and just got beaten by a true champion.”

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